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NSO Program 1: Shakespeare at the Symphony

Conductor Edward Gardner (photo by Benjamin Ealovega)
The National Symphony Orchestra had its season opening gala last weekend. The season really began with a program led by British conductor Edward Gardner, heard at the second performance on Friday night. The concept, Shakespeare at the Symphony, was a perfect excuse to bring together two excellent pieces never before presented by the NSO, Edward Elgar's Falstaff and the suite from William Walton's film score for Laurence Olivier's Henry V.

As Gardner announced before Falstaff he thinks audiences need help following the dramatic action in Elgar's delightful Shakespearean tone poem. To that end, we were invited to follow the story through descriptions on a supertitle screen, and it did enhance the music's effect. Gardner is climbing the ladder of principal guest positions, having served in that capacity with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and now the Bergen Philharmonic. He was able to bring the music to life with decisive ideas and a clear, contained set of gestures. He put the second violin section back with the first violins, moving the violas to the outer right edge of the orchestra. This allowed them to be heard much more clearly, a good idea since both Elgar and Walton gave them important melodies. The sotto voce sound of the string in the robbery scene (as well as of the violas and cellos in the scene in Shallow's orchard) and the hilarious bassoon solos were high points. Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Josef had a wistful, nostalgic sound as Falstaff dreamed of himself as a slender youth.

Other Reviews:

Seth Arenstein, NSO opens season with Shakespeare in words and music (Washington Classical Review, September 30)

Anne Midgette, NSO starts season with a new face in Shakespeare (Washington Post, September 29)
Elgar's score ends with the death of Falstaff, and the return of Prince Hal's melody indicates that his last thought is of his young friend who has spurned him. Walton's suite begins almost with the mournful passacaglia for Falstaff's death. Top-notch solo playing from English horn and flute stood out, as did more exquisite all-string sound. Before the final movement of the suite, actor Matthew Rauch gave a stirring recitation of Henry V's St. Crispin's Day speech. It led quite naturally to the "Agincourt Song" that concludes the suite, into which Walton incorporated the "Agincourt Carol," an English folk song from the 15th century.

Actors William Vaughan and Audrey Bertaux were less memorable in the balcony scene from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, staged with him moving among the orchestra musicians and her in the chorister seating above. This led just as aptly into the final selection, Tchaikovsky's fantasy-overture on Romeo and Juliet, which received a performance that really made me like it. It is true that in this piece, Tchaikovsky does not give in to his usual tendency to go on too long, but still Gardner accomplished the near-impossible by making me enthusiastic about a Tchaikovsky symphonic work. The battle scene was well marshaled — all fast, crisp, and aligned — and Gardner never let the potentially soupy bits wallow or drag in the least.

This concert repeats this evening at 8 p.m. in the Kennedy Center Concert Hall.

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